BBC BLOGS - The Devenport Diaries

Archives for December 2010

Merry Christmas

Mark Devenport | 19:04 UK time, Tuesday, 21 December 2010


I continued to work from home today, polishing off a review of the year which will no doubt be published on our main news website in a few days time. I decided that unless I had to be on the TV it would be foolish to venture too far from my rural fastness. However a quick run out this afternoon to replenish depleted stores led to lots of adventure as, just after cresting a snowy hill which I'd taken a run at to build up momentum, I came face to face with a tractor towing a car in the opposite direction. There then followed a bit of rapid gear braking followed by a long reverse back down a snowy lane, a task made more interesting by the Landrover and car which came up behind me. Then, like the Grand Old Duke of York, I had to make my way back up to the top of the hill again.

No crash, no getting stranded overnight, so I'm not complaining. But if you live in the countryside here, and don't own a 4X4, every journey these days is a case of keeping your fingers crossed and hoping for the best (although warm clothing, a shovel and a couple of bits of old carpet improve your odds).

Anyway, as of tomorrow, Wednesday, I'm on leave and I'm not intending to do any more blogging here until 2011. So can I wish you all, motorists on icy roads, pedestrians on ungritted footpaths, travellers stuck in far flung airports and those confined to their homes, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Let's hope for a bit more warmth in 2011.

Direct Action

Mark Devenport | 10:08 UK time, Monday, 20 December 2010


The SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie has called for the Executive to hold a special meeting on the weather "to consider how all public agencies might better prepare for extreme weather events". Ms Ritchie has a point when she talks about South Down at the weekend as "a case study in the need to have another, wider and deeper look at the problems that extreme weather events can throw up".

However, for purely selfish reasons I am hoping there isn't an emergency meeting as I am looking at six inches of snow outside and, with the fresh fall overnight, I am not convinced the car will tackle the hills it only just crested yesterday. So they may have to meet without yours truly for company.

Personally I am more drawn to the Sinn Fein "direct action" approach at the weekend. A number of activists, including junior minister Gerry Kelly, got the shovels out and cleared and gritted their local footpaths.

When they got back in from their endeavours, the Sunday papers would have made good reading for the republicans. Okay, columnist Diarmuid Doyle in the Sunday Tribune may have taken a crack at them over their Navan branch's inability to use apostrophes ("The Bobby Sand's Centre") and Gerry Adams' repeated denials of past IRA membership. But both the Tribune and the Sunday Times ran extensive news reports on the rise and rise of Sinn Fein in the polls, as previously noted on this blog entry. The creation of a Dail group of seven, which brings extra parliamentary rights, looks well within Sinn Fein's grasp, although if the election is delayed until March there's time for more fluctuations in the polls in the months ahead.

There was also a bit of good news for the DUP in the Sunday papers - the Telegraph did a review of "value for money" provided by the UK's 70 MEPs. Diane Dodds came in 11th, ahead of Bairbre De Brun in the 38th spot and Jim Nicholson at 45.

Back to "direct action". Sinn Fein doesn't have a monopoly on this - watch out for a cross party peaceline building project in the next few days (UPDATE: due to the snow that project has been delayed - and rescheduled for the New Year).

Cracking The Ice

Mark Devenport | 12:33 UK time, Sunday, 19 December 2010


Thanks in part to a neighbour with a mini-digger who scooped piles of snow away from my gate, I made it to Belfast today to present Inside Politics. The main guest is the Secretary of State Owen Paterson, also snowbound in the west of England, who gives us some detail about the government's draft discussion paper on devolving corporation tax here. The paper went to the Executive on Thursday, and Stormont ministers have about three weeks to consider it and make their own suggestions. The Exchequer Secretary David Gauke is due to visit Northern Ireland in January, after which the proposal should be re-worked and put out to public consultation.

In his interview recorded earlier this morning Mr Paterson defends reducing corporation tax against those who argue its a tax give away for businesses at the expense of a £310 million cut in local services. He also explains why he doesn't think it would have been a good idea to pressurise the Irish Republic to increase its corporation tax rate as a quid pro quo for British participation in the multi-billion pound bail out.

As well as Owen Paterson, I shall be speaking to economist Mike Smyth and our regular commentator Seamus Close, for what is the last Inside Politics programme of 2010.

Bag Maths

Mark Devenport | 21:07 UK time, Friday, 17 December 2010


The Department of Finance hopes the new plastic bag tax will yield £4 million a year over the next 4 years. If each bag costs 15 pence and the Executive receives all the proceeds I reckon we would have to buy 26 million bags each year to provide the required amount of revenue.

Predictably the new tax was welcomed by Sinn Fein's Daithi McKay who had pioneered a private member's bill on the subject. The NI Independent Retail Trade Association wants a meeting with the Environment Minister Edwin Poots to discuss the practicalities of the proposal.

The move has also been welcomed by the South Down Green councillor Cadogan Enright. Mr Enright says that for the past five years Green activists have been collecting plastic bags from the hedges around Lecale and Downpatrick and posting them off to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in London as a protest at the UK not copying the Irish Republic's scheme. Councillor Enright argues that "the Republic has shown that people will go back to old pre-disposable ways if given a chance - so must we".

So if you spot George Osborne carrying a bag from a Downpatrick grocers you know where he got it from.

Cadogan Enright is currently contesting the leadership of the local Green party. His opponent is the former Green Euro candidate Steven Agnew. I bumped into Steven Agnew in the Stormont canteen the other day and asked him when the new leader would be anointed. He told me the party should have the result this month, but won't announce it until January in recognition that Christmas is a quiet time so far as local politics is concerned. As Tom Petty once put it, "the waiting is the hardest part".

Snowbound in County Down

Mark Devenport | 11:43 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010


It's Friday lunchtime and, in common with people across Northern Ireland, I'm snow bound. Thanks to the wonders of telecommunications, though, I can blog and, as listeners to Talkback can testify, broadcast on the radio uninterrupted. Uninterrupted by the weather that is - the demands of children wanting me to help them build a snowman is quite another thing.

Anyway it's provided a chance to reflect on a couple of things from over the last couple of busy days.

First, my surmise in the last blog that there could be a Christmas truce betwwen Michael McGimpsey and Sammy Wilson proved rather over optimistic. It was merely an overnight truce with the Health Minister hitting the TV studios to declare himself £100 million short.

Money is obviously tight, but there were indications from Tuesday night's negotiations that several millions could have been moved around to the benefit of at last one Ulster Unionist minister if they had turned their abstentions into a positive vote for the budget. SDLP sources also suggested they'd been offered some inducements (by way of additions to their departmental budgets) to harden up their support. If so does this cross the line between party politics and assessing real departmental priorities? Or is it common sense in what is inevitably a bargaining process And will we see any more flexibility being shown before the budget is finalised, or will the battle lines harden as we approach the end of the consultation period in February?

Second, the balance in the Stormont budget between cuts and taxes. When George Osborne announced his Spending Review in October there was some analysis indicating it equated to 75%/25% ratio between cuts and taxes. We couldn't get a definite figure from the Stormont Finance department for the ratio in Sammy Wilson's effort to plug the projected £4 bilion hole in the local budget over the next 4 years.

Sinn Fein has been particularly anxious that the Executive should not be seen as merely passing on Tory/Lib Dem cuts, and in a series of statements Sinn Fein ministers highlighted the additional £1.6 billion which they reckoned hasd been generated in order to balance the books. On the face of it, as I said on Good Morning Ulster on Wednesday, this would imply £1.6 billion in extra revenue and £2.4 billion in savings, which is a 60%/40% ratio (similar to what Labour's Alan Johnson has talked about as his preferred option for tackling the UK deficit).

However Finance department officials only specified £840 million in extra revenue in the budget package - around half the Sinn Fein figure - and some of the detais for, say, the disposal of assets sounded pretty vague. But if you work on this basis the cuts/tax ratio would be more like 75%/25% or even 80%/20% (which is similar to George Osborne's ratio).

Frankly I haven't got to the bottom of this one yet, and if there are any number crunchers out there who think they have the answer I'd be glad to hear from them.

Third and finally, the rather clunky antics politicians get up to in order to appear on the TV. There's the phalanx - appearing before the cameras with an array of supporters behind you trying to nod sagely. It's designed to demonstrate group solidarity but the viewer can be distracted by the extras in the background.

Then there's emerging from negotiations to walk around outside with your colleagues in apparent earnest conversation. It's intended to give the impression of great concentration on the job at hand, but the real job is to ensure your picture gets on the TV.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness did this, fairly memorably, on the night of the Good Friday Agreement talks. On Tuesday night the Deputy First Minister appeared together with junior minister Gerry Kelly on the steps of Stormont Castle with a similar plan in mind.

Not to be outdone, the SDLP Social Development Minister Alex Attwood strolled out on the steps together with his adviser when I was live on our late news bulletin on Tuesday night. But I had already arranged to talk into a clip of Mr Attwood recorded earlier in the evening, so the news became a sequence of live Attwood/pre-recorded Attwood/then live Attwood again.

Job done or overkill? One SDLP insider made his views known within seconds, texting the minister's aide with the pithy comment "buck eejits!"

A Christmas Truce?

Mark Devenport | 16:30 UK time, Wednesday, 15 December 2010


The budget announcements are over and Stormont's Great Hall is now full of chairs ready for a carol service tonight. The four year deal brokered by Sammy Wilson is now out for public consultation.

The Health Minister Michael McGimpsey is thought to be unhappy with his allocation, but he's staying quiet for now. That may reflect a sense that the pre-Christmas period is no time for shroud waving. So perhaps the minister will observe a Christmas truce before resuming hostilities in the New Year.

The Ulster Unionists say they will study the budget in detail - their dillemma: go on the attack and prompt reprisal accusations that those who live in a Tory glasshouse shouldn't throw stones.

The SDLP has welcomed aspects of the budget, but backbencher Conall McDevitt has already been identifying holes in the education and road budgets.

Outside the Assembly, the TUV reckons it's bad for business and asks why nothing has been done to cut the number of MLAs and departments. The trade unions don't like the civil service pay freeze, but their Coalition Against Water Charges likes the fact these won't be imposed for the next four years.

The consultation on the draft budget is set to close on February 9th. The bare bones aren't likely to change much, but the document still leaves a lot of detail to be fleshed out on the extra revenue schemes which have been so heavily trailed.

Cold Castle

Mark Devenport | 21:59 UK time, Tuesday, 14 December 2010


And you thought journalism was glamorous? I have spent most of tonight hanging around in the freezing fog outside Stormont Castle waiting for the Executive to finish its deliberations on the budget. As I lose contact with my toes, I experience a sense of deja vu -it feels so much like the deep freeze during the Hillsborough negotiations on devolving justice which kicked off 2010.

Right now I am getting thawed out, after Stormont officials took pity on the press and invited us into the castle. My smart phone resisted all attempts to blog, so I have purloined a government computer on which to tap out a few words of wisdom.

As I write it looks fairly certain that the draft budget will be put up for debate in the Assembly chamber tomorrow. It won't necessarily be endorsed by all ministers - the SDLP and the UUP are more likely to let the document go to consultation without giving it either a thumbs up or thumbs down.

We are getting a trickle of bullet points. Belfast Harbour is to be asked to contribute £125 million to the Executive over four years. The cash reserves of local housing associations may also be tapped. We are in line for a plastic bag tax which it's thought could yield £16 million. The regional rate will rise in line with inflation. Public sector workers on more than £21,000 a year will be subject to a pay freeze.

Alex Attwood gets a "social solidarity fund" to help those hit by welfare benefit changes. The OFMDFM proceed with their community renewal fund, which the SDLP previously criticised.

Arlene Foster's Enterprise Department will get some more funds for job creation. And there's money for additional film studios in Belfast's Titanic Quarter. The budget should also confirm the rescue package for Presbyterian Mutual Savers.

I can't tell you at this stage what cuts each department will get, or how the Health Minister Michael McGimpsey will respond to his settlement. Some sources claim it's more generous than what's on offer for health in Scotland and Wales, but will he see it that way? There's suggestions that an external efficiency team (like the PEDU Performance Efficency and Delivery Unit set up when Peter Robinson was Finance Minister) will be asked to examine the health department to see what scope there is for further cost cutting.

There should be more detail in the Assembly tomorrow and, if my cold wait is not to be in vain, a bit more clarification from the First and Deputy First Ministers before the night ends.

Wikileaks revisited

Mark Devenport | 15:46 UK time, Monday, 13 December 2010


Wikileakstouched upon Northern Ireland at the start of the month. But the cables published in today's Guardian are a more comprehensive and interesting affair. The "rock solid evidence" that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were members of the IRA military command isn't spelled out. But it's prompted both of them to repeat their denials.

The Deputy First Minister rubbished the suggestion he knew in advance about the Northern Bank robbery whilst representing the Executive at the British Irish Council in the Isle of Man. The TUV leader Jim Allister says anyone implicated in the robbery should be in jail, not in government. The SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie says Messrs Adams and McGuinness should apologies to the Northern Bank employee and his wife in South Down who were taken hostage as part of the operation.

Whilst Gerry Adams dismissed the US cable which dealt with him, he attached great importance in the one which referred to the then MI5 headEliza Manningham Buller. Sinn Fein says the evidence that MI5 has files on the murder of Pat Finucane adds weight to the call for an independent international inquiry into his murder.

For years now there has been a stand off between the government, which wants any Finucane inquiry to be conducted under the more restrictive rules of the 2005 Inquiries Act and the Finucane family who believe the government would use the act to suppress the truth about their case.

In the Wikileaks cables Bertie Ahern makes no bones about his belief that the UK authorities colluded in the murder, saying "everyone knew" the UK was involved. In one document, the US Envoy Mitchell Reiss, suggests an inquiry should be headed by an Irish judge. An interesting suggestion given that, 21 years on from Pat Finucane's murder, the Secretary of State is still looking around for some compromise which might enable the gap between the government and the family to be closed.

Rowdy Students

Mark Devenport | 09:03 UK time, Friday, 10 December 2010


Last month this blog reported on a briefing by the Employment and Learning Minister Danny Kennedy at which he paid tribute to the peaceful way local students have conducted their campaign on the fees issue. As I pointed out at the time this was maybe a bit premature given that a decision on fees at Northern Ireland universities has yet to be taken.

Yesterday's disruption in the city centre shows there's potential for further trouble if the Executive decides it has no option but to follow the English example. The Institute of Directors' Joanne Stuart has yet to update her review on the topic. Ms Stuart's initial report recommended leaving local fees exactly as they are. But as Sammy Wilson pointed out in the Commons yesterday's vote on English fees has already had a budgetary impact on Stormont. Moreover the fact that its counterparts across the water will in the future be able to charge £9000 will no doubt bolster Queen's University's argument that it must be allowed to compete.

Today's Good Morning Ulster interview with the Vice Chancellor of the University of Ulster starkly exposed the difference between our two universities. He strongly criticised the Russell Group for "elitism" in pushing for a fees increase - and Queen's is one of the 20 leading universities which make up the group.

There has been widespread condemnation for the violent scenes in central London. But many in my generation (I got my fees paid and received a full grant back in the 1980s) will feel more than a twinge of guilt about society denying young people the chances afforded to us. My profession, the media, has questions to answer as well - would the student protests have made the same impact if they had remained as peaceful as, say, the mass demonstration in Dublin against the cuts?

I am off this afternoon to talk to a bunch of sixth formers about politics. The arrangement was that they would be asking the questions and I would be providing the answers. But in the light of yesterday's events here and in London I think a bit of role reversal might be in order.

Nick Blatter

Mark Devenport | 15:10 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010


The DUP's Nigel Dodds raised a few laughs in the Commons today with this question to David Cameron. "In light of his experience of the World Cup bid in Zurich last week, can the Prime Minister tell us what his view now is of an organisation that engages of the most convoluted and bizarre voting arrangements, which says one thing and then votes exactly the opposite way and who has a leader that seems more interested in power and prestige than accountability, and after he's finished with the Lib Dems, can he tell us what he thinks of FIFA?"

On the topic of tomorrow's tuition fees vote, Mr Clegg shouldn't count on any more understanding from his sister party, Alliance, than he is likely to get from the DUP. Naomi Long has just released a statement clarifying that she will vote against the proposed increase. "Raising the fees cap to £9000" she argues "will potentially put a university education beyond the reach of many students and could lead to students choosing courses based on the size of their bank balance and not their ability."

She acknowledges that "the recent changes which could lead to the poorest students getting free tuition for up to two years" might potentially be an improvement, but concludes that they "remain poorly defined and have failed to convince me that they outweigh the negatives."

"A total shambles"

Mark Devenport | 12:30 UK time, Monday, 6 December 2010


Not my assessment of the Ulster Unionist Party, but the view of their veteran Lisburn councillor Ronnie Crawford. Mr Crawford isn't happy about the party's treatment of the former Upper Bann Westminster candidate Harry Hamilton, who quit after failing to get selected to contest next year's Assembly elections. Mr Crawford, himself a former Mayor, thinks it was "uncalled for" to dump someone who had demonstrated he already had over the quota needed to get into Stormont.

After the UUP chair David Campbell used his conference speech to call the Freddie Mercury impersonator "Flash in the Pan Harry", Mr Crawford visited Mr Hamilton's facebook page to say the UUP needed "more Flash Harrys and fewer rash Campbells".

The Lisburn councillor reminded Mr Hamilton, as he considers his alternatives, that Alliance is a non unionist party, but continued "when will the UUP get a grip on itself? We are a total shambles and have thrown away a good man with a quota. Time for a stirring in the grassroots".

Councillor Crawford says that he's not thinking of jumping ship himself as he believes the UUP "needs all hands on deck". However here's a conundrum for the party hierarchy - they disciplined Lagan Valley activist John Lund for speaking his mind on BBC Radio Ulster. What do they do when a well respected colleague speaks his mind on Facebook?

From the Ramada to the Waterfront

Mark Devenport | 16:29 UK time, Saturday, 4 December 2010


I indulged in a spot of "double jobbing" today. I started the day contributing to our live coverage of the UUP conference at the Ramada hotel in South Belfast. Then I rushed off to the Waterfront hall in the city centre. No, it wasn't for a re-run of the UUP election contest held at the Waterfront in September. Nor was I purchasing tickets for Flash Harry, who is playing the hall later this month. Instead I got into the Christmas mood with the Ulster Orchestra's annual performance of "The Snowman", an extremely enjoyable annual treat.

Flash Harry might be concentrating on the Waterfront, but he did feature in the proceedings at the Ramada, with the UUP chair David Campbell labelling him "Flash in the Pan Harry" because of his lack of durability. The leader, Tom Elliott, didn't mention any of the Westminster candidates who have quit by name. But in an ad libbed section of his speech he appeared to share Mr Campbell's sentiments, paying tribute to life long members in the hall "who haven't given up, and don't run off just because they don't get what they want on one day".

Not all UUP members were comfortable, though, with the criticism directed at their former colleagues. When I asked the moderate East Londonderry candidate Lesley Macauley about them she made it clear that "they are still friends of mine".

Although Tom Elliott is no Barack Obama, I thought his delivery and presentation had improved. That said he still has to wrestle not just with the recent resignations but also with the legacy of decline visa-vi the DUP.

As suggested in my last entry the UUP's future relationship with the Tories remains a live issue. The UUP Deputy Leader John McAllister told us on "The Conference" that the Secretary of State Owen Paterson had assured him that the Conservatives would not run candidates against the UUP in next May's Assembly elections. But that's not the message which came from local Tories on the fringes of today's conference. They are obviously champing at the bit to announce their candidates.

Conservative HQ will have to sort this one out - watch out for a fudge which might see some local Tory candidates running, albeit with pledges of non-hostility and mutual voting transfers.

UUP: Suspensions and Resignations

Mark Devenport | 16:30 UK time, Friday, 3 December 2010


Not an ideal scene setter for the UUP conference. First, the news that former Upper Bann candidate Harry Hamilton has quit the party. Then news that the veteran Lagan Valley activist John Lund has been suspended for six months for speaking out on the "Nolan" programme. I shall include the disciplinary letter sent to Mr Lund in the extended entry.

Of course this is in line with Tom Elliott's stated position that there should be more discipline within the party. However I gather that at least one UUP member has already resigned in protest against the action being taken against John Lund describing it as "the hounding of a venerable elder of the Party". One source claims that around a dozen activists could follow, perhaps joining the local Conservatives.

What's unclear is the shape of the future relationship between the Tories and the UUP. Tom Elliott is due across in London next week to meet the Conservative vice chair Andrew Feldman. There has been some talk about a "Bavarian" model in which the UUP would be the local "franchise" for the Conservatives, along the lines of the German CDU and CSU. But that would imply the Northern Ireland Conservatives being subsumed into the UUP. By contrast, local Tory activists remain keen on fighting next year's Assembly elections. I'm told that after the Elliott/Feldman meeting we should get some clarity on this score.

Read the rest of this entry

A Cold House For Politicians

Mark Devenport | 11:46 UK time, Friday, 3 December 2010


Maybe not, on the face of it, the best of timing, but Sinn Fein is discussing global warming today in snowy South Belfast. Bairbre De Brun is joining environmental campaigners for a discussion of climate change linked to the Cancun summit.

However another republican group, eirigi, has been forced to change its plans, postponing its annual conference due to take place in West Belfast tomorrow. General Secretary Breandán MacCionnaith said: "Some of our activists, including those in Wicklow, Offaly, Sligo, Waterford, Dublin and Donegal are in areas that have been worst hit by the snow and going ahead with the Ard Fheis would probably have entailed holding it without them, something which we were not prepared to do."

So I decided to check in with the Ulster Unionists to see if their gathering, also due to take place in South Belfast tomorrow, might be delayed. A party source said they fully intend to press ahead, and are even now hitching their sledges to their huskies (actually he didn't say that last bit but agreed when I put it to him).

So no Flash Harry, but otherwise UUP business as usual.

UPDATE: Sinn Fein has also now cancelled a rally against cuts they were due to be holding in Dublin tomorrow because of the weather. However they are keeping themselves warm by basking in the glow of the latest Red C poll which puts them 3 percentage points ahead of Fianna Fail.

P.S. Earlier in the week, whilst picking the children up from school, I pirouetted gracefully on an icy footpath before ending up on my backside. Fortunately I was wearing so many layers I looked like the Michelin Man. No injury ensued, although I did contribute greatly to the mirth of Devenport junior and other assorted onlookers. I only mention it because it's given me a real sense of personal involvement every time I have heard the Roads Service and the local government association NILGA batting back and forth the responsibility (or lack of it) for clearing ice. Could an enterprising MLA not start preparing a private member's "Snow Clearing and Indemnity Bill" to try to sort out the matter and maybe assist private citizens who endeavour to clear the way near their own properties?

Wikileaks and us

Mark Devenport | 10:19 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010


I can't get on to the Wikileaks site at the moment, presumably because of the sustained cyber attack on the site. But my colleague Jim Fitzpatrick tells me that last night he saw a cable which referred to last year's visit to Northern Ireland by Hillary Clinton. Fairly predictably the cable predicted that the British government would want Mrs Clinton to urge the local politicians to accept what it called the "Westminster package" on devolving justice. "If the agreement is not completed by the weekend" the cable states "there is potential that some of the parties could seek to draw in the Secretary. The best approach is to urge all parties to work together patiently to reach agreement. An agreement would be a strong, positive signal to potential investors."

In the event, in public, Mrs Clinton told the parties devolving justice "is a decision for this assembly to take". However in making it clear that she wanted to see devolution completed she lined up behind the British and Irish position although in a rather more nuanced way than Gordon Brown, who made a rather clunking speech when he addressed the assembly chamber.

Should the Wikileaks site recover, it will be fascinating to see what the Americans were saying during the tense times after the IRA and loyalist ceasefires of 1994. One diplomat who has come in for a great deal of attention in recent days is Kathleen Stephens, the US ambassador to South Korea who reported that China might privately be ready to see the unification of Korea under southern control. That report may well be connected to the current cyber attack which some newspapers claim has been launched from China. Back in the mid nineties, Kathleen Stephens was principal officer at the US Consulate in Belfast at the time President Clinton made his first visit to the city. No doubt her cables about the unfolding situation here would have been a good read.

Don't Cross Morrow

Mark Devenport | 09:45 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010


If you have to annoy an MLA, think long and hard before choosing the Chair of the Justice Committee, Lord Morrow. He's not the sort of person who suffers fools and knaves, or indeed anyone else who provokes his ire. Today he's hinted that David Ford should consider his position over the "Jailgate" saga of missing prisoners (though maybe "gate" is not the appropriate term here for a situation in which gates appear to be either conspicuous by their absence or left swinging open on their hinges).

Yesterday he was dealing with a rather less serious matter, but again wasn't in a mood to be forgiving. Sinn Fein's Willie Clarke stood up at the end of question time to give an explanation to the Speaker as to why he had been absent from the chamber on Monday (Willie Hay had lacerated Mr Clarke for not being present to ask a question).

Mr Clarke explained that he had not been in attendance "because of extreme weather conditions in South Down. Indeed, members of your own staff could not make it in to work from Newcastle. I think that it is unfair to be lambasted for something beyond my control. I recognise that I should have withdrawn the question, and I apologise for that."

The Speaker accepted the apology, murmuring that all he had ever wanted was to be kept informed. Lord Morrow then got to his feet to wonder aloud, "Has the Member who was stranded yesterday ever heard of the e-mail or telephone system?"

A fair point, as the Speaker added. But the message to Messrs Ford and Clarke is, if you are looking for speedy forgiveness, look elsewhere.

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